Prime Minister David Cameron used a working dinner in Brussels last night to make an impassioned plea to European leaders to back his proposals for “substantial” reform of the European Union.
In a lengthy appeal to European heads of state and government from all 27 other EU member states, Cameron said that if the leaders wanted the UK to stay in the EU, they needed to address British voters’ concerns about immigration.
Cameron has come under sharp criticism from multiple European leaders over his proposals to limit in-work benefits to EU migrants who have lived in the UK for at least four years.
Earlier yesterday, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic said in a joint statement that they would reject any British demands to change EU laws to limit freedom of movement.
But Cameron reportedly said at last night’s dinner: “The levels of migration we have seen in a relatively short period of time are unprecedented, including the pressures this places on communities and public services. This is a major concern of the British people that is undermining support for the European Union.”
He added: “We need to find an effective answer to this problem.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested she was open to the idea of treaty change to accommodate British demands, saying “we are ready to compromise, but always on the basis that we safeguard core European principles.”
French President Francois Hollande also stressed that “European rules must be respected.” Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, meanwhile, told EU leaders that Cameron “is asking for our help, and we should help him.”
While no official decision or deal was reached at the dinner, European Council president Donald Tusk told reporters at the end of the night: “I am much more optimistic today than before our meeting.”
Cameron also said “really good progress has been made”, but added: “It’s going to be tough.”
“We have taken a big step forward,” he said in a press conference after the dinner, before adding: “There is a lot of hard work to be done.”
Last night’s dinner was widely seen as make-or-break for Cameron, who has promised an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership by the end of 2017.
Tusk said earlier this month that he wanted this week’s European Council to “address all the political dilemmas related to this process”, with the hope of member states being able to sign off on a “concrete proposal” in February of next year – a deadline commitment that he repeated last night.
The Vote Leave camp slammed Cameron’s latest efforts as “trivial”.